Unitus | GiveWell

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Unitus

About this page

GiveWell aims to find the best giving opportunities we can and recommend them to donors. We tend to put a lot of investigation into the organizations we find most promising, and de-prioritize others based on limited information. When we decide not to prioritize an organization, we try to create a brief writeup of our thoughts on that charity because we want to be as transparent as possible about our reasoning.

The following write-up should be viewed in this context: it explains why we determined that we wouldn't be prioritizing the organization in question as a potential top charity. This write-up should not be taken as a "negative rating" of the charity. Rather, it is our attempt to be as clear as possible about the process by which we came to our top recommendations.

A note on this page's publication date

The last time we examined Unitus was in February 2010. In our latest open-ended review of charities, we determined that it was unlikely to meet our criteria based on our past examination of it, so we did not revisit it.

We invite all charities that feel they meet our criteria to apply for consideration.

The content we created in February 2010 appears below. This content is likely to be no longer fully accurate, both with respect to what it says about Unitus and with respect to what it implies about our own views and positions. With that said, we do feel that the takeaways from this examination are sufficient not to prioritize re-opening our investigation of this organization at this time.

Published: February 2010

Unitus focuses on microfinance. Specifically, Unitus provides technical and financial assistance to microfinance institutions (i.e., microfinance banks which provide loans and savings) in the developing world.1

Our investigations of Unitus to date (details below) have not been able to answer what we consider key questions about an organization working in this area. These key questions include:

  • What impact does Unitus's technical assistance have on Unitus's partner institutions (i.e., the banks it supports)?
  • Is Unitus's due diligence on partner institutions answering the following questions:
    • What are partner institutions' "true" repayment rates? (More on the "true" repayment rate on our blog)
    • What interest rates do partner institutions charge and how do these compare to other available interest rates?
    • How do partner institutions monitor clients' potential over-indebtedness? What steps do partners take to prevent potential intimidation of clients by loan officers?
    • What are partner institutions' dropout and retention rates? (More on the importance of dropout/retention rates on our blog)
    • What are partner institutions' methods for targeting the very poor, and can they demonstrate that they are successfully doing so?

We would be interested in to reviewing any additional information from Unitus that addresses the questions above. Please contact us if you have information along these lines.


Updated: February 24, 2010

Details of our evaluations

We have considered Unitus at two times: We reviewed their website in mid-2009, and Unitus applied for a grant in late 2007. Details on each follow below.

2009 website review

In mid-2009, we reviewed the Unitus's website as part of a process to identify top international aid organizations. (How did we identify charities for review?) We reviewed Unitus's website to determine whether it met either of the following two criteria, which we believe indicate whether a charity is likely to eventually be able to meet our full criteria for a recommendation: (Why do we rely on information found on a charity's website?)

  • Does the charity publish high-quality monitoring and evaluation reports on its website? A charity meets this criterion if it freely publishes - on its website - substantial evidence regarding impact that (a) discusses how the impacts of projects or programs were evaluated, including what information was collected and how it was collected; (b) discusses the actual impact of the evaluated projects. (Why is monitoring and evaluation so important?) We seek enough evidence to be confident that a charity changed lives for the better - not simply that it carried out its activities as intended. Different programs aim for different sorts of life change, and must be assessed on different terms. We do not hold to a single universal rule for determining what "impact" we're looking for; rather, what we look for varies by program type. (For more, see, What constitutes impact?)
  • Does the charity stand out for program selection? A charity meets this criterion if it focuses primarily on (or publishes enough financial information to make it clear that 75% of its recent funding is devoted to) what we consider "priority programs." These programs have particularly strong evidence bases, enough to lower the burden of proof on a charity running them. (Why do we look for charities implementing proven programs?) Such programs include administering vaccinations, distributing insecticide-treated nets, and treating tuberculosis, among many others. (For more, see our full list of priority programs.)

Unitus did not meet either of these criteria.

2007 grant application

Unitus applied for our funding and recommendation for saving lives or reducing poverty in Africa, but did not advance past our Round 1 screen, which aimed at finding charities with strong self-documentation. For more information, see our overview page for this grant.

Specifics of why Unitus did not advance

We used the following principles in conducting our Round 1 screen for this cause:

  1. Look for strong documentation that lives have been changed for the better. One of the challenges of this cause is that it involves trying to help people who are far away and from very different cultures than our own; the fact that a charity's described activities seem to make logical sense isn't enough, by itself, to convince us that positive change has occurred.
  2. Look for a sense of how many lives have been changed (and how they've been changed) by an organization's activities. A sense of how many lives are changed "per dollar" is essential to decide between logical but different approaches, so we focused on the applicants that seemed most likely to be able to provide this sense.
  3. Aim for a complete or near-complete understanding of applicants' activities. Our Round 1 application asked applicants to feature a single program, but we also took the size and scope of the organization into account: a large, comprehensive organization needs extremely strong documentation in order to give any sense of its activities and effects, whereas an organization with a simpler and more cohesive model might be evaluated with less documentation.

Unitus was among the charities that did not provide this type of evidence and instead submitted evidence that gave descriptions of their activities relying on one or more of the following: anecdotes, newspaper articles, survey data (types of evidence that we are skeptical about, as we have written on our blog), and evidence of the size of the problems they were attacking - but did not give us information that gave us high confidence that their programs were creating positive life change, or information that we felt could begin to get at their cost-effectiveness in changing lives. It's possible that Unitus has the information we want, and didn't send it due to misinterpretations of our application, time constraints, or other reasons. But due to time constraints of our own, we opted to focus on the applicants who seemed most promising.

As part of that application process, Unitus submitted the following documents:

  • 1.

    "Our model focuses on seeking out and partnering with young, high-potential microfinance institutions (small banking organizations that serve the poor, often called MFIs), helping them build capacity, attract capital, and unite with our network to achieve rapid, sustainable growth." Unitus Organization Website. See http://www.unitus.com/unitus-in-action/what-we-do, accessed 1/8/10.